OPINION: Talking to kids about why mommies work

Kristin Cowart Pierce writes about the importance of talking to children about why some mommies work.
Kristin Cowart Pierce writes about the importance of talking to children about why some mommies work.

In this guest column followed by a Q&A, Kristin Cowart Pierce, owner of Brave PR, an Atlanta-based media relations firm, discusses the challenges of being a full-time working mom, particularly during the pandemic when so many parents were forced to work from home.

Almost a decade ago, Pierce wrote a book for young children to help her explain to her then-toddlers why she left home each morning and sometimes could not be at car pool pickup like other moms. It seemed the right time to resurface that project as conversations began centering on gender roles and work. Pierce hopes to inspire a new generation of career women to feel validated in their work and join the conversation.

By Kristin Cowart Pierce

Kristin Cowart Pierce writes about the importance of talking to children about why some mommies work.
Kristin Cowart Pierce writes about the importance of talking to children about why some mommies work.

It was early in the pandemic. My husband and I were tag-teaming child care at home. As a full-time working mom of two, it was a lot: navigating Zoom meetings, supporting anxious clients and trying to find a makeshift “office” in our home — all while teaching my kids how to learn virtually. I was extremely thankful we had the option to continue school remotely when many did not — but it was no cakewalk.

What happened one Thursday afternoon turned out to be one of the most telling moments of experiencing the pandemic as a working mother. It was my “turn” to work while my sweet husband (who is my secret weapon in surviving the struggle of balancing home and career) managed the kids. I packed up and stole away to my company’s office.

There, I envisioned a few glorious hours of escape. I’d be able to focus uninterrupted, work on a critical messaging document for a client and brainstorm on a brand’s creative campaign. I got to the office — the sole person in our space and one of just a handful in the entire building. I was giddy. I was going to rediscover so many of the things I’d missed: time, silence and my big desk to spread out papers, client decks and a laughable stack of scribbled Post-its (all futile notes amassed amid the circus that currently occupied my home).

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I unlocked the main doors to BRAVE PR and relished closing the door to my personal office … just because I could. About 45 minutes in, the phone rang. It was my 14-year-old son calling me to ask a question about his school work. I listened patiently and, somewhat in disbelief, inquired if he could just walk one room over and ask Dad the question. The reply took my breath away: “Oh, he’s busy, Mom. He’s working.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I really wanted to do the latter.

This phone call epitomizes pandemic life for working moms. Our children are wired to look to mothers for pretty much everything. Maybe it’s our fault — maybe we make ourselves too available. Maybe it’s generations of mothering just wired in our DNA. Maybe it’s the COVID zeitgeist whispering the narrative that a father’s work is more important than a mother’s. Or maybe fathers just know some secret they’re not letting us in on.

Regardless, it’s hard. And frustrating. Even so, I’ll admit it: It’s perhaps a little reassuring at the same time. That may not make much sense, but for a mom who struggles with “working mom guilt,” there is a part of me that secretly cherishes the fact that my kids still need me and want my opinion, my help, and my input.

I’ll also admit that as the pandemic roared on, this sense of reassurance would at times become maddening. Like many others in similar shoes, my daily routine called for me to step in as IT support, PE coach, Zoom etiquette instructor, short order cook (I do not cook) and puppy trainer. The new puppy might have been what sent me over the edge. As cute as he was, George was a terror — unknowingly timed to arrive right at the start of the pandemic. When my kids weren’t unintentionally sabotaging my attempts to run a business, George ensured every last second of my time was accounted for.

I soon resorted to posting this memo in our home:

Kristin Cowart Pierce created a sign that she hung in her home during the pandemic to help remind her children that she needed undisturbed time to focus on work even though she was physically in the house.
Kristin Cowart Pierce created a sign that she hung in her home during the pandemic to help remind her children that she needed undisturbed time to focus on work even though she was physically in the house.

No one read it, or at least they acted like they never did.

With quarantine now in the rearview mirror, I spend a lot of time wondering what our children will recall about this time. Will they look back on it with the same anxiety that we have felt? Will they remember all the stress, the angst, the worry? Or will they channel that incredible resilience children seem to specialize in and chalk it up to just a phase of life, an adventure during which they got to watch more TV than ever?

Only time will tell. But this era has seen the conversation around working moms deservedly become front and center. For many of us, the ever-present palpable emotions of frustration and guilt have intensified during the pandemic, and many career women feel their shortcomings even more in this COVID environment.

But a larger conversation is brewing, one that hopefully eases the guilt and allows more room to breathe — and more creative solutions for working women.

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Almost a decade ago, I wrote a children’s book to start this conversation with my own children. It was tough explaining to my toddlers why I worked, why I had to leave each morning, why I wasn’t always able to be there and why I couldn’t pick them up each day at car pool when other mothers did. These heartbreaking attempts at answers prompted me to write a message for children — and moms — in hopes that they would feel encouraged to go out and do whatever it was that empowered them.

For years, life, work and motherhood stalled my process of getting this book published. But when the pandemic started and I heard other working moms struggling, it renewed the heart and soul of my book. And “Mommies Work” was finally born.

Kristin Cowart Pierce writes about the importance of talking to children about why some mommies work.
Kristin Cowart Pierce writes about the importance of talking to children about why some mommies work.

Mommies Work (Lanier Press, $20) ” was my own attempt to become part of the narrative — to hopefully inspire the next generation of career women and reassure other moms that it’s OK to go after what you want and that it doesn’t take away from your role as mom.

It may play just a small part in helping start this dialogue with our little ones, but my hope is that the book helps career moms feel validated in their work (whether by choice or necessity). If it’s just one voice that is heard amid this larger conversation taking place right now, maybe I’ve done something right.

In the below Q&A Pierce shares more about her desire to help working moms talk to their children about work and find more balance in their lives.

Q: Why is it important to talk to kids about being a working mom?

A: Oh, it’s so important! As mothers, we traditionally get ready to go to some place they don’t understand. Young minds aren’t necessarily able to process the stretches of time and the absence. To the youngest, it’s even more confusing that we may leave on some days of the week, and not others. As working moms attempted to work from home during the pandemic, it caused the lines between work and family time to become blurry for our little ones. Explaining why we go to work — and the results of our actions at work — helps give words and meaning to mothers’ schedules. I also believe it plants the seed that moms can do anything!

Q: What kinds of questions did your children have about how, where or why you work?

A: Oh, my gosh — my children were so curious! “Where are you going? Why can’t you stay home? Does your office have an elevator? Who is in your office? Are there games there? Why do people keep calling you? Why are you always watching the news?” And the heart-wrenching, “Are you done with work YET?”

I’ve always tried to break it down and explain why work is important: It helps the family earn money, which allows us to buy groceries, go on trips, give you toys and pay for our house. I also believe strongly in explaining that work makes me happy. I share that it’s good for my brain. I help solve problems there, and going to work allows me to help other people.

Q: With so many people working from home, how do you think the pandemic may have changed children’s views of their moms at work?

A: I think mothers have gained rockstar status during this pandemic. Children have witnessed a seismic shift in how the home operates. They may not be able to articulate the changes that have taken place, but they know that things look and feel different. While sometimes challenging, the chance for children to witness their mothers in action is a fantastic opportunity. Even listening to “Mommy” as she talked with a client on the phone or pitches a sale over Zoom shows children a different side of their mom. I think this is incredibly empowering to little girls who will start imagining what it would be like to be in those shoes one day.

Q: What are some strategies that moms who are working from home can use to help their children understand the need for uninterrupted work time?

A: Designate a specific area as “Mommy’s Office” and use that space consistently. You can even put masking tape around the area or have children help you make a wall out of blocks or Lego bricks to designate your work space.

Hang a Stop sign in your office area so kids know not to interrupt when the sign is up. Be sure to take it down at the end of a conference call or Zoom meeting so the children know when it’s OK to ask a question or ask for your help. Have your kids decorate the Stop sign so they understand its purpose.

Take time to really explain to your children what you do for work. Put it in simple terms of how you help people and give them simplified examples of how your work impacts others. You’d be surprised at how few parents remember to really take the time to break it down and explain what they do for a living.

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